How Winter Cities Get People Outside — All Season Long

Vanessa Quirk - Nov 17, 2023
Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton

Long, cold winters can be a challenge for our social lives. As more of us struggle to get outside, entire neighborhoods can become desolate. But the Winter Cities movement hopes to change that dynamic. Since it was founded in the 1980s, Winter Cities advocates have urged chilly towns and residents to use the cold weather as an opportunity to get people outdoors and together in unique ways. 

In the latest installment of our “Getting Out” series — interviews about the importance of in-person interactions in an increasingly lonely world — Rev talks to Isla Tanaka, the Winter City planner for Edmonton, Canada, about what it takes to make a city liveable, and sociable, in winter.

Rev: What are the challenges that Winter Cities face?

Isla: Winter Cities get snow, and they are cold and dark in the winter. Darkness affects the way people feel, their mental health. Snow and ice make it more difficult for people to get out and get around. And then there’s the additional economic challenge of fewer people going out and purchasing in stores. Winter Cities can also have fewer tourists in the winter, so they can get an economic downturn. 

The question becomes: How do we embrace the winter?

So what does that look like in Edmonton?

In the past, the winter has been seen as the offseason. We’ve changed the language around that here in Edmonton, and we now talk about it as the winter season. 

Every weekend in Edmonton, there’s something to do. We just remind people to dress for it. As the Norwegians like to say, “There’s no bad weather, only poor clothing choices.” 

How do you design a winter event? How is it different from a summer event? 

You need warming spaces. A fire pit or a community hall where people can go inside and warm up a little bit. Have blankets available if that’s possible, or ask people to bring their own blanket. 

It helps to have buildings with good indoor-outdoor interaction — really big windows for example. You can have grandparents or parents or little kids inside, but they can still feel connected to the activity that’s going on outside. 

In the summer, you can have slower-moving, quieter activities where people will sit for a while. In the winter, you want activities that keep people moving so they stay warm. Have your event at a skating rink or somewhere people can curl or play games on the ice. If you’re on the snow, you can have kids painting on the snow or have games like snowshoe soccer.

The other thing to consider is placement. If an event’s on the south side of a building and blocked from the wind, it can feel 10 to 15 degrees Celsius warmer, which makes a huge difference to how people feel. 

Other than planned events, how do you make Edmonton more livable during the winter months? 

Our City Council has adopted Winter Design Guidelines, which means that all new city-led developments must consider four-season design. There are five basic design principles: capture sunshine, block wind, add lighting, add color, and have all-year infrastructure.

Private developers are embracing these principles as well. They’re seeing it as a better return on investment. They can then advertise, “Hey, we’re building a community that you can use year-round.” 

Then there’s transportation. We’re currently the only bus fleet in Canada that has bike racks on all our buses, so if the weather changes, we can throw the bike on the front of the bus and still get home. We can take them on our light-rail transit. All of our buses have GPS, so you can track if a bus is running late, so you can stay inside for an extra ten minutes.

Our City Council has put a hundred million dollars into expanding separated bike lanes over four years, which we can keep clear with priority clearing. We are now seeing an increase in winter cycling, at the same percentage as our summer cycling. 

Above all, you’re trying to change residents’ mindsets. How do you do that? 

We met with meteorologists. The first thing most people hear when they turn on the TV or radio in the morning is meteorologists talking about how cold it is. And there’s a big difference between saying, “Make sure you bundle up and you stay warm today” and “Make sure you have the right clothes on and get out and enjoy the day.” Totally different message. So we just had conversations with them, and we said, “Can we just shift the language a little bit?” That made a big difference.

Also, we invested in building a photo library for city documents with photos of children, parents, newcomers, and seniors cross-country skiing, skating. Because if people don’t see themselves, they don’t see themselves doing those activities either, right? 

We thought that culture shift would be a really hard, long slog. We were really prepared to wait ten years to see that shift. It happened way faster than we expected.